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OH THE DRAMA!

Here we’ll explore the importance of conflict and drama/tension (and why it doesn't need to be “OMG” BANG CRASH WALLOP)

 

"Oh yes he did!"

"Oh no he didn't- oh, no wait, he did. Oh well."

 

Imagine a story without conflict or drama. What if everybody agreed and nothing ever happened? It would certainly be calming, but would it make a good story?

 

Would you keep reading if the character woke up (again), smiled at the neighbours (again) went to work and got on famously with everybody and never put a foot wrong (again), then came home went to bed and did the same thing the next chapter?

 

Sometimes, at least in my humble opinion, life can feel a bit like that. We get used to the routine (and despite contrary opinion and Twitter feed fodder, writers do have normal days too). So we want a bit of excitement in our stories, so we can escape and go on an adventure or two, safe in the knowledge that we'll still be here at the end.

 

So how do we add a pinch of conflict and a sprinkle of drama to the soupy goodness that is our story?

We look at stakes, namely - what does your character want?

 

One wants to prove himself to his older brothers who always pick on him.

Another wants to join the league of assassins to find out who killed their family

 

Lets look at a broader view of people in general. What do we all want?

                     

Safety. Companionship. Love. Achievement. Success. Power. Control. Because we are all different, people will look at those personal goals and see some they want, and some perhaps that aren't so vital to them.

 

When you look at your characters, you choose their goal for the story, the motivation that drives them to push forward. As before, if they go out, get it and come back home without any trouble at all, it's a tad anticlimactic.

So we introduce our conflict - how can we stop the protagonist achieving their goal?

 

Our protagonist wants to become the Ultimate Knitting Champion. We'll assume they have some skill and a flair for matching colours and patterns, but we can't just let them win. That'd be too easy. So we introduce our conflict in the form of a rival, an arch-nemesis if you will.

 

How about the fiendish old lady who's been knitting for years?

Or the snobby girl who can afford all the yarn in the known world and secretly has a knitting machine?

 

Those are both conflicts and they're nice ones. But let's try a different tactic.

 

How about the conflict is an issue with the protagonist? They have fumbly fingers or their eyesight isn't very attuned to certain colours. They can barely afford the wool, let alone the entry fee. Immediately, we have a character in a hard situation who wants to win this competition and we want them to win it too! Throw in a promise they made to someone dear that they'd win the competition despite all odds, and your conflict is coming along nicely.

 

This brings us onto our conflict-checker - one simple question:

 

- What will happen if they don't achieve their goal?

 

Sometimes it's actually okay to have a character not complete their goal. If they don't achieve their goal, do they learn a huge lesson or grow in some way, or achieve an even better goal they didn't know they had?

 

Perhaps the girl doesn't win the knitting competition, she comes second or third. But she has made friends with everyone and one of them offers her a separate opportunity that will last much longer than winning would.

 

Most often though, we need to know that the character is going through their ordeal and we're spending time on reading their story because it's worth it. Their goal has to be a worthy one, like saving someone or investigating the truth of something.

 

Remember the promise our protagonist made that they'd win the competition for someone dear? That makes the goal of emotional importance and we can relate to that. We're instantly rooting for our character to succeed, so they can know they fulfilled that promise.

So, to work! Or as I like to think of it 'to the thing in my life that is so much better than the day job'.

 

We present our conflict see-saw, where you basically imagine the exact opposite of what your character wants. This again like the XX (from one of the previous ones, Characters?) is more to generate ideas, but hopefully it will give you some scope of how you can make things difficult for your protagonist and gripping for your reader.

 

Fill in the blanks relevant to your story and as always, feel free to leave your examples in the comments below (also great fun when you're procrastinating and just need something to fiddle with!)

My character ---- wants to gain ------. So instead I'm going to take away --------

 

So what happens if there’s too much conflict?

 

You go from one event to the other with the WHAM and the BAM, but you do need to sometimes pause for the thank you.

 

This doesn’t mean you need a chapter where nothing happens, but rather balance your action scenes with pauses for the characters to converse.

 

Even think right down to the sentence structure level - if there’s an argument for example, so the scene is heavy on dialogue, you can give the reader a break with a short bit of activity and show them the character’s actions.

 

“Why do you always do this?”

“Stop shouting at me-”

“It’s ridiculous, you’re a grown woman.”

“You can’t just-”

“This is the sixteenth time you’ve left Lego on the floor. I have no feet left!”

“Oh, don’t exaggerate.”

“It’s hardly an exaggeration.”

“Well you’re going on and on about it. Look, we’re going to be late now.”

“I didn’t want to go anyway. I still don’t. They’re your friends. I just want to stay at home safely without stepping on random toys.”

So that’s a bit dialogue-heavy. It’s a minor conflict, a quick bicker rather than a full-blown argument, but it’s still two people conversing at length.

When struggling with scenes like these, ask the three conflict questions:

  1. Is it necessary to the scene, or am I using it as filler to support what’s going on?

  2. Can I include this dialogue, but add some action in between?

   3. Is there a way to flip the purpose on its head?

So, Q1 – Is it necessary?

This is an opportunity to be blunt and brutal with yourself. While this may come during the editing process rather than drafting, you can sometimes sense it while drafting, so a quick note to yourself can prompt at a later date.

Q2 – Can I add action?

 

“Why do you always do this?” He threw up his hands.

“Stop shouting at me-”

“It’s ridiculous, you’re a grown woman.”

“You can’t just-”

“This is the sixteenth time you’ve left Lego on the floor,” he stuffed his tie in his pocket. “I have no feet left!”

“Oh, don’t exaggerate.”

“It’s hardly an exaggeration.”

“Well you’re going on and on about it.” She opened the door and pointed in the hope of herding him out to the car. “Look, we’re going to be late now.”

“I didn’t want to go anyway. I still don’t. They’re your friends. I just want to stay at home safely without stepping on random toys.”

So we can see they’re on their way out, but we’ve still managed to include all the dialogue. This way, you also avoid the block pattern of lots of dialogue then lots of action spilled in a big splurge.

Q3 – Can I flip the purpose?

 

“Why do you always do this? It’s ridiculous, you’re a grown woman.”

“You can’t just-”

“This is the sixteenth time you’ve left Lego on the floor,” he was trying not to smile now. “I have no feet left!”

“Oh, don’t exaggerate.”

“It’s hardly an exaggeration.”

“Well you’re going on and on about it.” She pointed at the door in the hope of herding him out to the car. “Look, we’re going to be late now.”

“I didn’t want to go anyway. I still don’t. They’re your friends. I just want to stay at home safely without stepping on random toys.”

She blew him a quick kiss as he passed with the car keys in hand. “Well, you shouldn’t have married a nursery school teacher then.”

It’s still an argument of sorts but now it’s almost affectionate. We see them leaving so there’s still action in the scene, but we can also get a feel for them as a couple by their dialogue.

 

One thing to remember-

 

Apart from Rule Number 4: ALWAYS SAVE AND BACK UP YOUR WORK

 

...is that there will be ample time to edit out any kinks or splurges. You don’t need to write a scene perfectly first time, or even fiftieth time (I’m strongly of the belief that perfect is not actually even a thing). You just have to get the bulk down so you can start pruning.

Remember: The biggest conflict we writers tend to experience most is the one we have with ourselves.

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